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Stars need right balance

Players must know they are more than just athletes

By Declan Bogue

Published 13/01/2016

With the programme: Dessie Farrell, CEO of the GPA, is helping players mix their sporting and personal lives
With the programme: Dessie Farrell, CEO of the GPA, is helping players mix their sporting and personal lives

What kind of GAA will we have in five years' time? Change is a constant, but GAA President Aogan O'Fearghail's anecdote on Monday suggests some things will stay the same.

He said: "When I was in Leitrim recently, they got a hammering in the Connacht championship and they were beaten by an even bigger score in the qualifier. The back page of the Leitrim Observer that week had the lovely headline 'We Will Be Back'."

Good old Leitrim, it would seem. One of its most famous sons, the author John McGahern, was fond of stating that in Kerry, they celebrate an All-Ireland win. In Leitrim, any win at all would fill the county with sheer delight.

McGahern got to the core of the inter-county players' dilemma in his short story, 'Love of the World'.

The colourful central protagonist, a Mayo midfielder called Harkin, lives a big life in every sense. And yet when his footballing days come to an end, he finds it hard to cope without the male and female groupies who used to flock around him or ask for autographs. His self-esteem was gnawed away, the tale ending in the format of a Greek Tragedy.

The story was written in the early '90s. We wonder what McGahern would make of it all now. In Vincent Hogan's interview with Dessie Farrell last weekend, the CEO of the GPA made some telling points.

"So many of our players don't see themselves as being anything other than an athlete," he said. "For some reason when you take that away, either through retirement, injury or de-selection, it can be a massive issue for those individuals to deal with."

Referring to a programme set up by the players' body on how to balance sport and life commitments, he continued: "This programme helps players understand who they are outside of the athlete.

"It puts a concrete plan together for them to have these parallel lives, this dual career as we call it - and getting the balance right in that dual career."

The end is always tough for players, even going back to the time of Harkin. County football and hurling requires living a lifestyle. How prepared they are to do this begins to depend on the level of optimism within each county.

Do they place too much emotion in their sport?

In Gary Smith's epic essay about the four-minute milers, it was noted that Roger Bannister believed that the athlete was only a sliver of the man.

Farrell would contend that current players find it hard to reach that conclusion.

"Take, for example, somebody who has wanted to be a county footballer or hurler since they were six," he said. "They fall in love with the game and build themselves up to be the best they can be on the field of play. Then all of a sudden, on a given Sunday, they throw the gearbag over their shoulder, leave the dressing room and that's it. It's over.

"To expect players to suddenly be at peace with that, that everything they've directed their lives towards for the last 25-30 years is just gone in the blink of an eye, it's unnatural.

"We're saying that players need to understand at the earliest possible age that 'You're more than just an athlete. You need to start building your life accordingly'."

So many players define themselves as county footballers and hurlers. How many players have Twitter and Facebook avatars that show them in action, playing for their county?

Is this enough? What message are the GAA sending out here, with players forced to do everything managers request, the managers themselves fighting for their own lives?

Some people might have thought it was deflecting, but when Terry Hyland was asked about Martin Dunne's absence from the squad, he said: "I'll be straight with you - if it keeps going on the way it is for the next five, six years, I don't know where they are going to get players from because I don't know how you can work and play inter-county football going forward."

The other side of it is that if there is potential to do something, you will always be lured back. Would Dick Clerkin still be playing at the age of 34 if he hadn't won his two Ulster medals aged 31 and 33?

Would Rory Kavanagh return to football at the age of 33 unless Donegal were capable of doing something?

The ultimate hero is he who sticks at it with no reward in sight. We are thinking about Benny Coulter, but also Liam Óg Hinphey. Asked by this reporter if he had his time over again would he have spent it in service to Derry footballers and hurlers, he replied: "Without a doubt."

The day after his brother Kevin was married, with Liam Óg as best man, the two lined out in a Christy Ring Cup fixture at Celtic Park against Kildare. They thought nothing of it then, and little of it now.

The day after Conor Laverty of Down was married last year, he was out on the training pitch, taking full part in the session. Being captain at the time carried responsibility.

Through the generations, the GAA have been able to trade off players' ambitions and devotions. Maybe the Instagram generation won't be as sympathetic to it.

Belfast Telegraph

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